When the Los Angeles-based Josephson Institute of Ethics recently released its 2008 Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth, the results were not pretty.
The survey of nearly 30,000 high school students nationwide found that 64 percent had cheated on a test in the past year (up from 60 percent two years earlier) and 38 percent had cheated more than once. More than a third had used the Internet to plagiarize. And lest they get credit for coming clean on the anonymous survey, which also tracked rising rates of teen lying and stealing, more than a quarter confessed to lying on at least one survey question.
Despite their dishonesty, the students had a high view of their own ethics. More than nine in 10 said they were "satisfied with my own ethics and character," and nearly eight in 10 affirmed that, "When it comes to doing what is right, I am better than most people I know."
Those incongruous rates of self-satisfaction among lying and cheating teens shocked many parents and pundits, but they probably did not surprise research psychologists Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell. In their new book, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, they marshal an impressive array of statistical and anecdotal evidence to prove that Americans, especially the young, are suffering from "corrosive narcissism."
A fixation on indulging and exalting oneself, narcissism is linked to vanity, materialism, relationship troubles and rule breaking. Its cultural consequences are easy to spot. Just look at the five-fold increase in plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures performed in the past decade, the greedy overconfidence that drove our mortgage meltdown and the self-absorption that leads senators, celebrities and ordinary citizens to habitually post their most trivial musings on Twitter and believe that the rest of us care which game show they watched on television or which burrito they ordered at Taco Bell.
Despite their dishonesty, the students had a high view of their own ethics.
Narcissism particularly afflicts many teenagers and young adults. Among other data, Twenge and Campbell cite a study of 37,000 college students that found narcissistic personality traits rising as fast as obesity rates from the 1980s to the present, with one in four college students in 2006 agreeing with the majority of the items on a standard measure of narcissistic traits. As for narcissistic personality disorder, a severe, clinically diagnosed version of the trait, nearly 10 percent of Americans in their 20s have experienced its symptoms, as compared with only 3 percent of Americans 65 and older. That's a stark disparity, since older adults have had many more years to experience the disorder and it can be diagnosed only in adulthood.
It's significant that young Americans vulnerable to narcissism were raised in the heyday of the self-esteem movement, when well-meaning baby boomer parents, teachers and media gurus incessantly urged them to "love yourself first," "let nothing come between you and your dreams" and believe that "you're the best." Rather than stoking healthy self-confidence, such messages may have dampened work ethic while fueling unrealistic expectations and inflated egos. Neither is much use in the real world, where believing in yourself cannot guarantee success and putting your own immediate desires ahead of all other concerns can be a recipe for disaster in work, love and life.
Twenge and Campbell have taken some heat for their diagnosis of America's ills, but they are getting a better hearing today than they would have a year ago. The economic downturn already has forced many Americans to cultivate virtues that are keys to kicking the narcissism habit: humility, simplicity and connection to community. If ever we hope to transform our me-first culture into one that better serves our children, now is the time to start.
Colleen Carroll Campbell. "Challenging America's Me-First Culture." St. Louis Post-Dispatch. (May 7, 2009).
Reprinted with permission of the author, Colleen Carroll Campbell.
Colleen Carroll Campbell is an author, print and broadcast journalist and former presidential speechwriter. She is the author of My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir and The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy. Her website is here.Copyright © 2009 Colleen Carroll Campbell
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